Should a failed prime minister be able to nominate people for the honours list?

Under the antiquated British government system, she can reward friends, advisers, donors or anyone else she chooses

Former British Prime Ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson at the National Service of Remembrance at The Cenotaph, in London, on November 13, 2022. Reuters
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I always make the same mistake. At this time of year, looking forward to the year ahead, I allow hope for the future to triumph over past experiences.

For example, I often hope that a new year means new thinking. Will this be the year when British politicians of all parties demand serious reform of the British system of government? Why? Because it doesn’t work. The failures are increasingly obvious year after year. Yet beyond talk, nothing much is ever done.

Nevertheless, in 2024 I am still hopeful – or perhaps deluded – once more. For the past six months, I have travelled all around the UK to discuss my new book on how to improve the British system to make politics fairer and government better. Audiences are hugely encouraging, at least in confirming evidence of a failing system that needs to change.

This week, that evidence has been confirmed by the appointment of new members to the British House of Lords by Liz Truss. She is our record-breaking prime minister – record-breaking in the sense that she was in Downing Street for the shortest period in British history, a mere 49 days. Ms Truss cratered the British economy and then was unceremoniously dumped by her fellow Conservative MPs. Yet under the antiquated British “system”, a failed prime minister is permitted an “honours list” to reward friends, advisers, donors or anyone else she chooses.

Those sent to the House of Lords are unelected and yet can make British laws for the rest of their lives. It’s a crazy system, although I should add that I know some members of the House of Lords personally and rate many of them highly. About 200-300 peers work hard and are an important check on the government and the House of Commons. But there are 800 Lords in total. Some are – frankly – useless. Thankfully, most of the useless ones rarely attend the House. But the House of Lords has become a prime ministerial dustbin into which a leader may place rivals, failed MPs, donors and old friends.

If Labour wins the 2024 general election, however, they may put Lords reform into action as part of their reinvention of government.

Labour’s constitutional reforms began in the 1990s but ran out of steam. Prime minister Tony Blair then moved on to issues voters care more deeply about. The result is that the half-reformed Lords is the world’s most peculiar national legislature.

Only Iran and Britain, for example, permit officers of the state religion to be in parliament by right. There are two dozen Church of England bishops in the Lords. Bishops tend to be good people, but so are millions of other Britons of other religions, or of no religion.

Britain also still has around 100 “hereditary” Lords as lawmakers. Why? Well, it’s a tradition. But we also had a tradition of burning witches at the stake, and in Victorian times a tradition of sending schoolchildren up chimneys to clean them. Being traditional doesn’t make something right, useful or sensible.

One further weird British tradition is that in our democracy, we never know when we may have a general election. The prime minister decides. That means Rishi Sunak will choose to go to the polls in March or May or October or even later – but only when he thinks his party has the greatest chance of winning. This too is part of a ludicrous system, although opinion polls suggest that whatever date Mr Sunak chooses, he may still lose. Labour has had a consistent poll lead for months.

So will Labour really bring about systemic change to a political system that Labour politicians generally accept is failing? Perhaps. But those same politicians also understand that the big issue for voters is almost never constitutional reform. It’s the cost of living, the economy, health care, education, transport and other public services.

A future Labour prime minister may look at the antiquated parts of the British political system and decide that our constitutional peculiarities are indeed bad for democracy. But that future prime minister will also be aware that those constitutional peculiarities are useful for himself or herself.

Senior civil servants have often told me that new prime ministers soon realise that they could spend time getting rid of the bizarre traditions and peculiarities of the system but eventually lose interest especially if voters don’t seem to care.

Recently, a senior Labour MP agreed with me that constitutional reform was necessary but – with commendable honesty – told me that it was unlikely to be a priority for a new Labour government because such reforms were not a priority for the British people. “Why should we spend time doing something the British people are not demanding that we do?” the MP asked me. “Because it is the right thing to do,” I responded.

We both laughed. But the serial failures of British politics in the past decade are no laughing matter. Reform remains the right thing to do.

Will it happen? Eventually, yes, I hope. But in 2024? Don’t hold your breath. Happy New Year!

Published: January 03, 2024, 7:00 AM